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Interpersonal communication

September 21, 2009   

It’s a topic I’ve covered a zillion times before. I recently thought about it again because back in August, Becky tweeted: “Dating Tip for Dudes #38: She doesn’t necessarily want a suggestion, she just wants you to listen. Do your BEST.”

In romantic relationships, friendships, family relationships, coworker situations, there are several categories of what kind of interaction a person is looking for when they reach out. They could be looking for any of the following:

  • A shoulder to cry on or a sympathetic ear. This person is looking for a friend in their corner. This person wants to vent. The best thing you can do is listen and let them know they are not being crazy/oversensitive/etc.
  • Wisdom and/or perspective beyond what they were able to come up with on their own. This kind of person wants advice. Drawing from prior experiences and similar situations to tell them what you might have done in the past in a similar situation will help them.
  • A kick in the behind to get them started on making changes. This person wants a coach. Tell them you know they can get off their butts and kick ass. Remind them of their prior accomplishments.
  • Actual, concrete assistance, where the friend/family/etc. offloads some of their workload. This person is seeking help.

In all of these situations, it is very important that the person reaching out and the person responding know what it is that is being sought out, otherwise the two people will end up in a very frustrating conversation.

Let’s say someone is complaining to you about their current job, or feeling like a schlub, feeling unmotivated. This could be a friend, your SO, your parent/child, etc. Depending on what they are seeking, you might do any of the following:

  • Let them vent: Ask them if they just want you to listen. Listen to them. Do they seem mostly angry, sad, depressed, frustrated, or something else entirely? Ask them questions that let them work out how they are feeling, and why. If there are things you don’t understand, ask them, but let them lead the conversation. Sometimes, a large part of stress is not knowing exactly how you feel, and talking it out can make the person feel better. It also helps to know someone else is in their corner and cares about their perspective. Something that’s important to remember is that it’s not about how you feel about the situation, but about how this person does.
  • Give them advice: Ask them if they want advice. You’ll see that this is a theme. This interaction is not about you giving someone what you’d want in their place, but what that person wants. Remember even when they ask for advice that they are not you and will not behave the same as you in the same situation. Consider how applicable the situation you are describing is to the advice seeker, be nonjudgmental, and don’t say “should” and “must”, but stick to “could” and “might”. This is not an opportunity for you to tell a slightly-related story or for you to “give them a life lesson”, so don’t repeat yourself  and or make them think that you believe there is one bandaid to their type of problem. Adjust your advice as more details are revealed and let the person feel heard, not categorized.
  • Coach them/Kick them in the butt: Some people like this. You really have to know someone really, really well in order to do this, and things differ situationally, so ask them too. I have very little to say in this matter because I am not a person who responds well to this, but I know this is definitely what some people want. Anyone who relates to this, feel free to talk about this in the comments.
  • Offer help. Again, ask them if they want help. People often think others will ask for help when they need it, but I find this to be completely untrue. People feel incredibly guilty or embarrassed to ask for help, but are grateful when it is offered. Let’s take the example of someone looking for a job. Concrete help is not repeated nagging/reminders to update their resumes; concrete help comes in offering to do some chore for them so they will have a time slot free that they did not previously have. It could also come in asking them if they could use a resume format and a reviewer, and acting promptly if they answer in the affirmative.

Generally, I fall into the 1st and 4th categories and will feel completely frustrated if confronted with 2nd or 3rd categories. For me, when vent, what has usually happened is some perfect storm of feeling like I have too many to-do items and not enough time, combined with juggling a couple of stressful situations at once. These situations might have to do with worrying about a friend or family member, getting over an illness, preparing for a deadline, or any of a million different things.

So by the time I vent, I am completely overloaded. The thing that will help is if some of those things on my to-do or stress-about list can come off the list, through the magic of circumstances or through help. The last thing I need is another thing to worry about or another item to add to my to-do list.

Also, I’m a resourceful lass. By the time I vent, I’ve been thinking about the situation for a very long time from many angles. I’ve explored several reasonable and several unreasonable paths to a solution. I’ve thought about the players in the situation and have probably tried talking to them. I’ve researched the crap out of any remaining questions I have about the situation. Basically, I’ve devoted a lot of time & thought to resolving the situation.

Realizing this opened my eyes to exactly why I get frustrated in the face of advice when I’m seeking a place to vent, and I think it is relevant to the tweet referenced in my intro paragraph. When someone gives me advice, it’s usually someone who cares about me, and someone for whom I care in return. When they give me advice, there are two things that might happen:

  • If I’ve already researched that solution, it makes me frustrated that they would have thought I hadn’t thought of something that took them about 5 minutes to come up with; OR
  • If I haven’t, this effectively puts another item on my to-do list to pursue. Because they are important to me and are likely to follow up with me out of concern, this means that I have to push off the other actual to-dos I have on my overburdened list to go look at this new thing. It might be immensely helpful too, which is another good reason to pursue it. But does it help alleviate the things that led me to venting in the first place? No, because I still have all the to-dos on my list still.

Help differs from advice in that someone is actually taking items off my to-do list. That is fabulous. Advice adds more items to my to-do list or makes me feel like they think I’m stupid. Being listened to when venting helps tremendously because I need to release the pressure valve and work out my feelings, and that lets me know the friend/family/etc. hears my needs and addresses them.

And there is no formal end or conclusion to this. I hope this lack of finish fills you with immense dissatisfaction. 😀

Next blog post will probably be a review of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

Update: I just realized that sometimes, I really do want 2 & 3. 3 in particular is helpful when I’m losing motivation. Having someone remind me of my accomplishments can really kick me out of a funk. I very, very rarely ask for #2, but when I do, I am extremely grateful to get good advice. The critical difference is that I’ve asked for it, which means that I want a new perspective and that I know I have the bandwidth to handle whatever advice I’m given, rather than being overloaded.

September 25, 2009 at 7:19 pm

What a thesis! I will add this to my bookmarks for the next time I hear people get frustrated with each other. Also, I have a funny related story that I plan to post about, and will reference this as back-up material. Thanks for being so thorough!

September 27, 2009 at 12:22 am

Heh, anything I can do to help! 😀

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